The 2018 Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band was a surefire hit from his announcement. Featuring an ensemble of some of the most prolific gay actors in Hollywood, a seasoned director in Joe Mantello, and an increasingly polarized ideological society, the play could not have come at a better moment in culture.
As if it was ever in question, the revival’s cast reunited for a film adaptation of the play. Netflix’s The Boys in the Band, is a stylish, small step above rehash of a staple in queer cinema in the 1970 film. Where it lacks tension and the ferocity of the original, it makes up for in committed performances with lots of subtext.
The film opens to the chronically anxious Michael (Jim Parsons), a 30 something gay man living in the Upper East Side in the late sixties. As he dreads hosting a soiree for his best friend Harold (Zachary Quinto), he is joined by the reserved Donald, a much calmer counterpart to Harold’s chaos. The two establish a repertoire far wittier than most dialogues in today’s dramas. Insulting, playful, and incredibly mean, they only begin to scratch the surface of internalized shame and its projection on a group of gay men.
As the guests arrive, Michael is forced to deal with an old college friend and his woes. The man, Bernard, is the traditional straight male archetype. Clean, scotch-drinking, family man. He works as a lawyer, soaked in his comfort zone until he’s sprung into a group of diversely different men, all riddled with demons largely born out of a mentality as dangerous as Michael’s.
The core of The Boys in the Band remains the same all these years later. It persists as a chilling and profound character study of the multifaceted experience as a gay man. Each character sheds light on universally singular experiences. With Michael’s struggle with his faith, Donald’s career complacency, Howard’s crippling paranoia and insecurity, Emory’s (Robin De Jesús) flamboyance, and Larry (Andrew Rannels) and Hank’s (Tuc Watkins) relationship troubles, there is much to unpack.
Like similar ensembles of its genre, the film unpacks these issues with an incredible level of nuance and realism. These actors are able to translate these characters so well on screen because they themselves have experienced so much of what the characters are going through. It not only sheds light on the timeless struggles of the gay man, but also the response to this pain. Each character exercises their demons in different ways, none of which is conducive to a healthy lifestyle. When Bernard is thrown into the mix, these quirks only explode from the jealousy and hatred the characters feel for him – how easy it must be to be as simple and breezy as Bernard.
The original film is, of course, superior. It has a level of intensity that compels the viewers to dig deeper into the characters’ psyches. As the events of the film unfold and the night grows darker, viewers witness the hidden quarrels that lay in these men. Unfortunately, the Netflix reboot washes out much of this intensity to bring forth a lighter watch.
This is most apparent in the monologues delivered from each character towards the climax of the film. Director Joe Mantello makes the choice to illustrate these monologues through visuals, but rather than lift the details, it takes away from the powerful poeticism of each man’s recounting of their past. What made the original so profound is how greatly the men tell their stories with such meticulous detail that viewers can illustrate the rest in their minds.
In fact, the few choices that divert from the original film are what make the 2020 reboot inferior. The core remains, though, and the actors are incredible. Namely, Jim Parsons pours himself into the lead role of Michael. At certain points throughout, it’s noticeable that Parsons is drawing from himself and bringing his own pain to the character. Likewise, Watkins and Quinto expertly craft their characters’ turmoil.
The film’s end is one of the strongest moments of originality brought to the story. Each character is shown reeling from the events of the night, and Michael’s post party walk is delicately filmed, with a metaphorical final shot indubitably burning into the heads of the viewers.
While the relatively tame tone of the film was a misfire in the sense that it implies these issues are no longer as relevant or persistent, the actors give it their all and maintain the scrappy heart of the narrative. The Boys in the Band may not offer much in the way of originality or pushing the story further, but for those unfamiliar with the story, it’s a perfect introduction into a hidden plight that continues to burden men around the world.